There have been more Bibles made, distributed and sold than any other book in the whole world. The Bible is so popular because many believe that it is God’s written Word. If it is true that God has spoken to us through His written Word, then we need to understand which books belong in the Bible and which books do not belong.
As we continue our series on What is the Word of God? our attention turns to what is known as the Canon of Scripture. The word canon comes from Latin and has to do with a straight reed that is used for measuring. By inference the word canon denotes the idea of something that is held up to a rule or set of rules or something that is measured against a particular standard.
So literally the Canon of Scripture is those Scriptures that meet the standard, rule or measure of Scriptural Canonicity. So by definition “the Canon of Scripture is the list of all the books that belong in the Bible”. So let’s take a hard look at the Canon of Scripture. Let’s look at the standards and rules of canonicity that the church has employed historically to determine which books should be included in the Bible.
Old Testament for some
This particular study is essential for Judeo-Christianity. Moses wrote that believers are to adhere to the words of God “by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life…” If the Bible (God’s Word by way of His voice) is really “life” to people then we had better know what is in it and how it got there.
The Bible is separated into two major sections: the Old Testament predominantly written in Hebrew and the New Testament written in Greek. For Protestants, the Canon of the Old Testament is made up of 39 different books ranging from Genesis to Malachi.
Tanakh for others
The major genres of this vast array of literature include historical narrative, poetry or wisdom literature and prophecy. Christians refer to this text as the Old Testament while the Jews refer to it as the Tanakh, which is an acronym for the three major divisions of the work, namely the Torah (Law), the Nevi’im (Prophets) and the Ketuvim (Writings). The Tanakh should not be confused with the Talmud, which in essence is an extensive Hebraic commentary on the Tanakh.
The oldest complete manuscript of the entire Old Testament is known as the Leningrad Codex, which dates back to only about 1008 AD. We do have some fragments of the Old Testament that are older than this but not the complete work. I know, I wasn’t too impressed with how old it was either.
According to the contents of the Old Testament the date of its writing should range from roughly 1400BC to 400BC. So to have a complete document that dates back only a thousand years is just not very impressive when the date of its original writing is much older than that. A lot could have happened to the text over that span of time.
There is another document that dates back to about 200BC that helps to authenticate the Hebrew Old Testament. The Septuagint or LXX, which is a Greek translation of the Old Testament, dates back to just before the time of Christ. The translators apparently used a Hebrew text that is for the most part lost to us now.
Supposedly commissioned by Ptolemy II for the many Jews in Alexandria, it does add weight to the authenticity of the Old Testament but it is in a different language than the original. Again this leaves us with a very dissatisfying taste in the mouth concerning the authenticity and accuracy of the Old Testament record.
The Dead Sea Scrolls speak
However, there was a landmark discovery in the late 1940s that changed everything. In some caves along the dry river beds near Qumran just adjacent to the Dead Sea, urns were discovered that contained the bulk of the Old Testament texts. All of the books of the Old Testament except Esther where found at Qumran. In many cases multiple copies of books were found.
These Dead Sea Scrolls date back to about the time of Christ or around 30-35AD and are believed to have been drafted and hidden by the Essenes, who were a very strict and conservative Jewish sect. When comparisons were made between the Dead Sea Scrolls and works such as the Leningrad Codex, the only real differences seemed to be mostly related to the kinds of scribal errors you would expect. These included some variant glosses and emendations, all of which were considered negligible.
In essence we were able to go back a thousand years earlier than what we had with the Leningrad Codex and verify that the text of the Old Testament had been preserved with great accuracy and authenticity. In other words, it was now clear that there had not been any tampering with the text or major revisions for over 2000 years, which is incredibly remarkable, especially in light of all the criticism the Old Testament books had received over the millennia.
According to our best records, the Old Testament was completed by about 435 BC. For Christians it is enough that Jesus and the apostles clearly validated the Old Testament Canon as presented by the Jews through the Tanakh. Jesus and the New Testament authors quote the Old Testament over 295 times.
With that kind of endorsement the early church had no problem accepting what the Jews had put forward as God’s Word. The question now is on what basis should the Old Testament Canon be closed? We will answer that question and look at the Canon of the New Testament next week.
As you wait for next week’s article, find your copy of the Bible, dust it off if necessary and dive in. If you don’t have a Bible then I would encourage you to get one as soon as possible. You might be surprised as you thumb through the pages of this unlimited spiritual resource to discover for yourself the majesty of the world’s number one bestseller.
– Reverend Bradley S. Belcher is the senior pastor with the International Baptist Church of Budapest, www.ibcbudapest.org. Should you have a question or comment regarding this column email email@example.com.